Friday, 26 February 2010

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz (January 1, 1864 – July 13, 1946) was an American photographer and modern art promoter who was instrumental over his fifty-year career in making photography an accepted art form. In addition to his photography, Stieglitz is known for the New York art galleries that he ran in the early part of the 20th century, where he introduced many avant-garde European artists to the U.S. He was married to painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

Alfred Stieglitz - Early Work / Pictorialism

While Stieglitz was recuperating he had corresponded with photographer Eva Watson-Schütze, who urged him to use his influence to put together an exhibition that would be judged solely by photographers. Until that time all photographic exhibitions had been juried by painters and other types of artists, many of whom knew little about photography and its technical characteristics. Ever since the 1898 Munich exhibit Stieglitz had hoped to create a similar collective of artistically-minded photographers in the U.S., and with Watson-Schütze's urging he felt the time was right to bring a group of his friends together for the purposes of creating an exhibit to be judged solely by photographers. Stieglitz began looking for a location to hold such an exhibit, and in December 1901 he was invited by Charles De Kay of the National Arts Club to put together an exhibition.

Within two months Stieglitz had assembled a collection of prints from a close circle of his friends, which, in homage to the Munich photographers, he called the Photo-Secession. Stieglitz had full control over the selection of prints for the show, and by putting it together Stieglitz was not only declaring a secession from the general artistic restrictions of the era but specifically from the official oversight of the Camera Club The show opened at the Arts Club in early March 1902, and it was an immediate success. He had achieved his dream of putting together an exhibit judged solely by photographers (in this case, himself), and both the Arts Club members and the public responded with critical acclaim.

Invigorated by positive responses he received, he began formulating a plan for his next big move – to publish a completely independent magazine of pictorial photography to carry forth the same artistic standards of the Photo-Secessionist. By July he had fully resigned as editor of Camera Notes, and one month later he published a prospectus for a new journal he called Camera Work. He was determined it would be "the best and most sumptuous of photographic publications", and from the start it lived up to his ideals. The first issue was printed only four months later, in December 1902, and like all of the subsequent issues it contained beautiful hand-pulled photogravures, critical writings on photography, aesthetics and art, and reviews and commentaries on photographers and exhibitions.

Stieglitz was such a perfectionist that he advanced the art of photogravure printing by demanding such high standards for the prints in Camera Work. The visual quality of the gravures was so high that when a set of prints failed to arrive for a Photo-Secession exhibition in Brussels, a selection of gravures from the magazine was hung instead. Most viewers assumed they were looking at the original photographs.

Throughout 1903 Stieglitz worked at a feverish pace to publish Camera Work according to his very high standards while pursuing multiple opportunities to exhibit his own work and put together shows of the Photo-Secessionists. He was, without exaggeration, while dealing with the stresses of his home life. Although he brought on the same three associate editors he had at Camera Notes to assist with Camera Work (Dalleft Fuguet, Joseph Keiley and John Francis Strauss), he refused to let the smallest details pass without personally approving them. Later he said that he alone individually wrapped and mailed some 35,000 copies of Camera Work over the course of its publication.
By 1904 Stieglitz was once again mentally and physically exhausted. Badly needing a rest he decided to take his family to Europe in May, but in typical Stieglitz fashion he planned a grueling schedule of exhibitions, meetings and excursions. He collapsed almost upon arrival in Berlin, where he spent more than a month recuperating. He spent much of the rest of 1904 photographing Germany while his family visited their relations there. On his way back to the U. S. Stieglitz stopped in London and held a series of meetings with the leaders of the Linked Ring. He had hoped to convince them to set up a chapter of their organization in America (with Stieglitz as the director), but the membership there feared that Stieglitz would soon become their de facto leader. Before he could change their minds, he once again took ill and had to return to the U.S. without accomplishing his ambition.

He returned to more turmoil among his colleagues, with new factions competing to take on Stieglitz as the primary spokesperson for photography in America. By good fortune, while he was gone his friend Edward Steichen had returned to New York from Paris and was living in a small apartment on Fifth Avenue. He noticed that some rooms across from him were empty and thought they would be an ideal place to exhibit a small number of photographs. At first Stieglitz was not interested, but Steichen convinced him that, like Camera Work, this would be something that Stieglitz alone would control. Within a few months Stieglitz had secured the lease, assembled a collection of photographs and published an announcement about the new exhibition. On 25 November 1905 the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession opened with one hundred prints by thirty-nine photographers. The gallery became an instant success, with almost fifteen thousand visitors during its first season and, more importantly, print sales that totaled nearly $2,800. Work by his friend Steichen accounted for more than half of those sales.

Stieglitz now had four full-time jobs at once, not including his family, and as usual he devoted himself to all but his family with seemingly boundless energy. Emmy, who had never given up thinking she would one day earn Stieglitz's love, continued giving him an allowance from her inheritance in spite of his on-going neglect. Her support allowed him to work without having to be overly concerned about financial matters, and through the combination of his jobs he became an even more relentless advocate for photography as an independent art form.

He became convinced that the only way photography would be seen as an equal to other art was for it to be placed in the same standing as other art – to be exhibited and published directly next to painting, sculpture, drawings and prints. He sensed that the public had already embraced artistic photography as a legitimate art form, and that even the Photo-Secession, which he had created, was now a part of the accepted culture. In the October 1906 issue of Camera Work his friend Joseph Keiley summed up these feelings: "Today in America the real battle for which the Photo-Secession was established has been accomplished – the serious recognition of photography as an additional medium of pictorial expression. While many people would have been happy to have realized a goal as significant as this, Stieglitz, always the iconoclast, began looking for something to rattle this growing complacency.
Stieglitz, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the show, took photographs of her art work and issued a separate portfolio of his platinum prints of her work. The success of her show marked a turning point between the old era of Stieglitz as revolutionary promoter of photography and new era of Stieglitz as revolutionary promoter of modern art.
During the course of his long career, Stieglitz produced more than 2,500 mounted photographs. After his death O’Keeffe committed to assembling the best and most complete set of his photographs, selecting in most cases what she considered to be only the finest print of each image he made. In some cases she included slightly different versions of the same image, and these series are invaluable for their insights about Stieglitz's aesthetic composition.
In 1936 Stieglitz returned briefly to his photographic roots by mounting the one of the first exhibitions of photos by Ansel Adams in New York City. He also put on one of the first shows of Eliot Porter's work two years later.
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